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‘Suspiria’ harnesses the horrific power of the feminine

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

There are some films that alter the paradigm, for better or worse, to leave you guessing, wondering, and trying to make sense of it all. They may bore you, or infuriate you; they may charm you, make you feel like the cinematic medium has shifted. But no matter what, you have never seen their like before, and may never again. Whatever you may feel about Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria – whether you love it or hate it, find bits of it dull and other bits illuminating – you really have never seen anything like it.

Calling Guadagnino’s Suspiria a remake is unfair, though, both to it and to the original. Yes, it follows the basic plot, in which Susan Bannion (Dakota Johnson) goes to Berlin to attend the famous Tanz Dance Academy and discovers a coven of witches, but it takes the essentials of the narrative and goes off on its own, crafting something that complements the 1977 film without aping it. Susie auditions for a group of instructors with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) at their head, and her power as a dancer so enthralls the instructors in general, and Madame Blanc in particular, that she’s immediately accepted, despite her lack of formal training. As Susie immerses herself in the life of the dance academy, events transpire to imply that the school is a cover for a coven of witches, led by the mysterious Mother Markus. Unlike the original film, however, which makes the uncovering of witchcraft central to its narrative thrust, Guadagnino’s removes the undercurrent of mystery by featuring long scenes with the teachers and including very explicit depictions of their powers. Here, Susie is not really interested in uncovering witchcraft; that task is left to Sara (Mia Goth), who investigates the mysterious disappearance of her friend Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), leading her to snoop about the dance academy. A subplot involving the concurrent investigation of Dr. Josef Klemperer (also Swinton), Patricia’s psychiatrist, overlaps with the dance academy sequences, presenting a three-pronged narrative drive that constructs a (mostly) cohesive plot, something that Argento’s film discarded in a favor of a hallucinatory fever dream logic.

Suspiria is about emotion and image, not about narrative thrust, and for the most part the film relies on its aesthetic sensibility to drive audience engagement. Like Argento’s original, Guadagnino sets the aesthetics front and center, building a surreal sensibility with great care. The film combines the austere, grayscale palette of 1970s Berlin (both east and west) with the warmer and surrealist interior of Tanz, and the interior of Susie’s psyche itself, as she becomes more immersed in the life of the dance academy. The coven of senior witches are presented as disparate figures, varying in age, race, and appearance, with Madame Blanc at once a force of control and of freedom. They give Susie their dreams, a combination of the erotic, the violent, and the sublime. The hallucinatory quality of the dreams contrast somewhat with the grayscale austerity of the rest of the film’s aesthetics, adding splashes of red in the midst of the gray. But those visual elements will develop across the film to the central performance of Volk, Madame Blanc’s famous ballet in which Susie takes the role of the protagonist, and the ritualistic denouement.

Suspiria is strongest when it focuses on the complex and ever-shifting dynamics between the female leads, from the pushing and pulling with the coven, who are going through a crisis of leadership, to the developing relationships between Susie and Sara, Susie and Madame Blanc, and among the rest of the company. These relationships are treated with a complexity and a tenderness that avoids simplification – the film depicts the occasional cruelties of female dynamics in tandem with the depths of emotional and psychological love and dependence. As long as the women and girls act as bastions of the coven, they are protected, sustained, loved, but there is also violence at the center, of punishment for those who depart or attempt to depart from the structure. The film’s moments of most horrifying violence are centered on what women do to women, and what women suffer, for each other, for art, and for humanity. There are continuous reiterations of images of blood, urine, hair, female bodies and their association with life and death. The film details the breaking and mutilation of bones and muscles, the fragmentation of bodies, the bloodiness of birth and menstruation, the female connection to the earth and need for freedom from the earth. It’s a fascinating development of female relationships and power, recalling Greek depictions of the Bacchae, pagan veneration of the sacred feminine, Judeo-Christian terror of the power of women and witchcraft, and political and sexual oppression within patriarchal structures. These are witches with real power, for both good and evil, and they exist beyond the confines of the contemporary social order.

But Suspiria has a sometimes incoherent relationship with its depiction of female power, evil, and the feminist undercurrent of its own narrative. The Tanz coven are set against the intensity of male power (the dance academy was formed in post-war Germany and there are heavy implications that it was pushing back against fascism and all forms of totalitarian stuctures). The film is awash in feminine imagery, references to mothers and motherhood, reliance on female friendship, teacher/student connections, and physical, ritualistic connections within a society of women. The only male character of any note is Klemperer, played by an actress, but it is his subplot that complicates the film’s relationship to the feminine and that draws into confusion its otherwise heady reliance on female power. To make a subplot out of an elderly psychiatrist, himself a representation of the scientific establishment that prizes masculine rationalism over the “delusions” of the feminine, is problematic in itself, taking attention away from the dance school and the women at its center. Despite Swinton’s presence, she’s still playing a male figure (there is no indication in the film that Klemperer is Blanc in disguise, nor is he in any way typified as feminine) who, about halfway through the film, becomes a major focus. The film has posited the coven functioning as an autonomous society older than Christianity, removed from the rules of the patriarchal establishment, who use their collective powers to subdue male authority, to control their world, and to act independent of male prerogatives. To then shift the focus to a male figure, even one played by an actress, is to confuse the narrative and to place too much importance on a phallocentric subplot.

Although there is much to criticize about Suspiria, even those elements add interest to the film. It’s a great piece of horror and a fantastic work of cinema, sprawling, intense, labyrinthine, and fascinating in every frame. It’s the sort of film that makes you want to sit down and analyze, only to revel in the moments of sublime abandon, watching a ritualized frenzy that is solely for women, that is about the power of the feminine. This isn’t Argento’s Suspiria, because Argento already made that film. This is something that belongs wholly to itself. This is horror at its greatest.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Author: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Lauren is a film critic, writer, editor, and angry feminist, with a Masters in Film Studies from NYU and a PhD in making men mad on Twitter.

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